Training Guidelines for a Cent Cols Challenge
Riding a Cent Cols Challenge is probably the toughest multi-day event you can do on a bike while still sleeping in a bed every night. To climb one hundred cols (mountain passes) in ten days you will have to ride approximately 200 km and climb an average of 4,000m every day. The days are long, usually starting soon after dawn and sometimes finishing after dusk. These are the mountains, so if you are unlucky the weather can be bad, with freezing rain and sleet all day. Cumulating a hundred hours of cycling, 2,000 km and 40,000m of climbing in unfamiliar terrain in just ten days and in all weathers is a completely new level for all but the most experienced long distance cyclists.
Even if you have ridden seven-day stage races in the mountains such as the Haute Route or the Tour Transalp, a Cent Cols Challenge is still another level. These other events typically cover 700-750km and 20,000m over seven days, so are less than half what you must ride to complete a Cent Cols. Don’t underestimate the difference.
Does this mean you have to be superhuman to ride a Cent Cols?
Of course not. But if you want to go the distance, without injury and in reasonably good health, you must prepare seriously. This means acquiring the fitness, the musculature, the skills, the knowledge and the experience you need for a successful ride.
So how best to prepare for a Cent Cols Challenge?
It’s of course impossible to answer this in detail without knowing a great deal about you: your abilities and experience, your strengths and weaknesses, your training history, the time you have available to train and the constraints you must deal with. The purpose of this article is to provide as many pointers as possible so that you can build your own plan.
The article is aimed at the first-time Cent Cols rider, but I am assuming you already have a good deal of experience cycling in the mountains. If you are not regularly riding more than 5,000 km per year, if you have never ridden a tough mountain sportive like the Marmotte or the Maratona, if you have never done a multi-day event in the mountains, I recommend you go and do all of these things first. This is not to say it is impossible to finish a Cent Cols without all this experience, but it would lengthen the odds to a very considerable extent.
Ready for more? Then read on…
As always, before thinking about what might be in the training plan we need to take a close look at the demands of this specific event. We have already hinted at some of these above. A Cent Cols Challenge is somewhere between a stage race like the Haute Route and ultra-distance events such as the Race Across France (2,500 km), but is different in a couple of important ways.
First, it is not a race. There’s no kudos or recognition whatsoever for riding faster than anyone else, and the group comes together twice a day at the feed stations. Second, it is truly a climbing challenge. The routes are designed for constant climbing (and thus the inevitable descending that goes with it). The rides are supported, but require self-sufficiency for long periods between the feed stations.
These are the main event demands:
- Aerobic endurance: the physiological capacity to cycle 200 km and climb 4000m every day for ten days.
- Determination: the will to keep going when all you want to do is stop.
- Technical: strong climbing and descending skills
- Nutrition: the ability to eat and drink enough to meet your energy needs while cycling
- Equipment: choices of bike, bike-fit and personal equipment which support your ride.
Your goal in training is to arrive at the start of your Cent Cols Challenge ready to go the distance, as fit (or fitter) than you have ever been, rested and unstressed, fully confident in your skills, in your nutrition plan and in your equipment.
To make this actionable you need to break it down into categories and set specific objectives and milestones per category. These are most important categories to focus on in your training:
Let’s look at each of them in turn.
It should be obvious that sheer volume of training is the single most important metric, whether measured by hours on the bike, kilometres ridden or metres climbed (or a combination of all three). Previous Cent Cols riders have succeeded with as little as 6,000km and 50,000m, but the great majority ride between 10,000 and 15,000 km and climb between 150,000 and 200,000m per year. Some do very considerably more. The more training you have done (and recovered from), the more you will enjoy your Cent Cols.
Set your own target based on your training history and your available time to train. Do as much as you can, but be sensible about any big changes. Do not suddenly double your training load, for instance: this is likely to result in an injury. You may be able to get away with as much as tripling your usual training load during a week’s training camp in the mountains, but you must then take a recovery period to give your body time to adapt. Viewed over a longer time period your training volume should be ramping up progressively. A good long-term trend is +10% per week, perhaps a bit less if you are over 55, perhaps a bit more if you are under 45.
Since the Cent Cols is all about climbing, you should seek out hills and do as much climbing as possible on the majority of your training rides. Don’t despair, however, if you live in a flat area. You can still build your aerobic endurance on the flat, and you can simulate climbs by riding into a headwind with a big gear, or by using a turbo trainer. On the turbo, put your front wheel on blocks to simulate the slope and create the same riding position.
As a loose guide for your long rides, once you reach two months before your Cent Cols event you should be aiming, at a minimum, at two back-to-back rides of 6-8 hours each on the weekend. One month before, increase this to two back-to-back rides of 8-10 hours each. If at all possible, plan a training camp in the mountains 4-6 weeks before the event. Aim at riding on average 100-120km per day with 3,000m of vertical, but include at least one day at 160-180km and 4,000-5,000m of climbing.
Two weeks before the event the focus switches to maintaining fitness while reducing fatigue. Don’t stop riding completely, but cut the volume by more than half, take several rest days with no riding and make sure you arrive well rested.
What about intensity, I hear you ask?
The answer to this is highly individual. The strongest riders, and anybody with competitive GranFondo objectives in the same season as their Cent Cols, will want (or need) to include some high intensity rides in their training. If the Cent Cols is your sole objective, it’s debatable. The fact is that, apart from the occasional very steep section, you will ride the entire Cent Cols at low intensity. My own ride statistics show that I rode for 72% of the time at endurance pace or less, and 28% at tempo pace.
You will build all the aerobic endurance you need by riding at endurance pace, below your aerobic threshold (AeT, also known as the first ventilatory threshold, VT1, or the first lactate threshold, LT1 and not to be confused with the anaerobic threshold). This is an easy pace, sustainable all day. You should be able to hold a normal conversation while riding at this pace. If you ride faster than this (as is typical for most club rides) you will not gain any more aerobic fitness, but you will increase your fatigue. This is counter-intuitive but important to understand. It’s better to do more volume at low intensity than to push the pace and be forced to cut back the volume. From the strict point of view of increasing your aerobic endurance, there is no benefit to riding at tempo pace. (There may be other benefits, such as developing group riding skills, but these are not relevant to training for a Cent Cols).
The benefits of doing some limited higher intensity work, such as occasional rides including long intervals at sweet-spot (just below the anaerobic threshold: AnT, VT2 or LT2) or shorter intervals above AnT are as follows:
- you may increase your ability to “punch up” a short climb,
- you may increase your strength endurance or your ability to grind up a long steep climb,
- you may increase your psychological tolerance for the discomfort of long efforts.
While these are not negligible, training at higher intensity can only provide the icing on the cake. It is not the cake. You must build the cake first and this means many long hours of training at low intensity. There are no shortcuts, and don’t believe anyone who tells you the contrary. The aerobic adaptations (such as increased capillarisation and mitochondria density) take a long time to develop and only become significant after the first three hours of cycling, so in a very real sense you are doing a six hour ride for the benefits obtained in the last three.
To summarise on intensity: if your main focus is on training for a Cent Cols, at least 90% of your training should be at low intensity.
Off the bike training
If all your training is cycling you will sooner or later pick up injuries due to muscular imbalances and the stresses and strains of being constantly in a posture that the human body did not evolve for. You may have gotten away with it until now (especially if you are below 50 years old) but riding a Cent Cols is almost certain to tip you over the limit. It’s vital to learn techniques to increase your mobility and flexibility and to relax tight muscles, and it’s beneficial to do activities that increase your strength and reduce or eliminate the imbalances.
A good time to do a big block of off-the-bike training while reducing your time on the bike is for a six-week period starting about five months before your Cent Cols event. This is before the training load from cycling becomes too high and will prepare both your mind and your body for it. At the end of the block you will be raring to go on those long rides, and you can reduce the strength workouts down to a maintenance level of just one or two sessions a week.
Here are the activities you should consider:
- Mobility and flexibility. Find a Yoga or Pilates instructor who understands cycling and who can teach you the movements and stretches most appropriate for your needs. It’s important to do this with a professional because incorrect movement patterns lead to injury.
- Strength. The stronger your muscles, the further or faster you will be able to cycle before fatiguing. It’s therefore highly beneficial to do regular gym sessions including exercises such as step-ups, lunges, squats and planks. Progress to single-leg and offset load variants to help with stability and core strength. Again, do this with a professional to avoid injury.
- Other sports. Swimming, running or walking are complementary activities that use your muscles differently and help reduce or eliminate the imbalances. It is not always better to go for another bike ride; sometimes it would be better to go for a swim, especially during a recovery period.
Read here for more on off-the-bike training and how to integrate strength and conditioning to your training plan.
Often overlooked or misunderstood, recovery is the crucial partner to training. Becoming stronger requires two things: first a sufficiently high training stimulus and secondly time and opportunity to recover and adapt (i.e. grow new muscle, new capillaries, etc.) It’s important to note that training does not make you a stronger cyclist on its own; you only get stronger during recovery. (Note also that the stimulus must be “sufficiently high”: if you keep doing pretty much the same training, you will never improve).
Traditionally, coaches have dealt with the need for recovery by prescribing a periodised training plan, often on a four-week cycle consisting of three weeks of progressively increasing load followed by a recovery week. If you want to do this, try to plan your recovery weeks around your biggest constraints, where you would find it hard to train in any case. An alternative approach followed by some athletes is to avoid the rigidity of the four-week cycle and simply rest whenever they feel the need.
I recommend you take a look at a new method that is gaining popularity and appears to have a solid scientific basis: using Heart Rate Variability (HRV). Once you have established a solid baseline, your HRV provides a good measure of the extent of stress your body is experiencing. It has been shown that high-intensity training when HRV is unusually low leads to little if any gain.
I find this to be a compelling approach. You simply take a one-minute measurement under the same conditions every morning, as soon as you wake up. If the reading is in the normal range, you follow your training plan. If the reading is outside the normal range, you do a low intensity ride or take a rest day.
The most important skills for a Cent Cols Challenge are climbing and descending. The potential gains in both areas are significant. We are referring specifically here to the skills involved, not to your muscular strength, your physical fitness or your FTP. Highly skilled climbers are very efficient: they have learned how to convert a higher percentage of their energy into gaining altitude than the rest of us ordinary mortals. They will thus either reach the top quicker for the same energy expended, or use less energy to climb at the same speed as a less efficient cyclist. Highly skilled descenders gain minutes on the descents simply by descending faster, with little or no additional effort. Their higher speeds come mostly from braking less and maintaining speed through the corners.
How to develop these skills?
As with any skill, improvement comes from deliberate practice of good technique. Let’s look at climbing and descending in turn.
First, climbing. The basics of climbing efficiently are in the pedal stroke. Pay careful attention to this at the start of each climb. The best gradients for learning efficient technique are in the 6-8% range. Begin at a sustainable pace and choose the gears that will enable you to spin at about 80rpm. Remain seated and focus on developing a smooth, fluid pedal stroke while keeping your upper body relaxed. Rest your hands on the hoods or take a loose overhand grip wide on the bars. Try to activate your diaphragm and breathe deeply in and out of your belly. Focus on different parts of the pedal stroke in turn: first pushing forward and over the top, then pushing down, then pulling back and finally unweighting your leg as it comes back up (there’s no need to pull up). Your foot should be relatively flat throughout, with little flex in your ankle. The steeper the slope, the more you should push down with your heel on the down stroke. Keep your core and especially your pelvis stable. This is hard to do initially and takes a lot of practice (as well as core strength). Persevere and you will be rewarded.
The mantra to remember is “LIGHT FEET, HEAVY SEAT”. You should feel a constant rhythm, light in your shoes, relaxed in your upper body. Things to avoid: un-weighting your seat as you push down, rocking from side to side or pulling on the handlebars. (The French call this pedalling with your ears).
It’s also important to master the skills of climbing while standing on the pedals. The technique is slightly less efficient than remaining seated, but is both an easy way to provide more power to get over a short steep section and a way to use your muscles differently. It also helps stretch your back and hamstrings, and is thus useful on a long climb. I recommend standing for up to 20% of the time on a long climb, particularly in the corners where it often gets steeper, or on an interminable long straight to break the monotony. If the slope doesn’t change much, change gear to bring your cadence down: it should be much lower than when seated. Anything higher than 60rpm will result in your heart rate spiking. Correct technique when standing is to keep the upper body perfectly still while rocking the bike gently from side to side with your wrists. Look far ahead up the hill and keep your centre of gravity directly over the centre of your bottom bracket. Your hands should be light on the hoods: use almost your whole weight to drive the pedal down on one side while unweighting your leg on the other side. See here for a video explainer.
Practicing descending when you don’t live in the mountains requires a little more creativity. The main challenge in descending faster is in taking the corners, so you can in fact make a great deal of progress just by learning to corner faster, without the need for a steep slope. All you need is a couple of bends that you can enter at high speed. For obvious reasons, the bends must have good visibility and light traffic. The ideal place to practice is at one of the off-road cycle centres. If there isn’t one close to where you live, consider setting up a few cones to mark out a circuit in an empty carpark.
There are three steps to mastering high speed cornering:
- Adopt the right position on the bike: hands in the drops, elbows bent, head up, looking around the corner, light on the seat, pushing down on the outside pedal and on the inside arm.
- Take the right line through the bend: for a RH bend when riding on the right (or a LH bend if riding on the left), check behind, if safe to do so move to the centre of the road, brake progressively but firmly, cut the apex and exit wide. For a LH bend when riding on the right (or a RH bend if riding on the left), check behind, stay close to your side of the road, brake progressively but firmly, if safe to do so, cut across the centre of the road and exit wide back to your side. Beware blind bends!
- Progressively increase your speed: on entry to the corner and then through the corner. First practice arriving faster, then when you are comfortable progressively brake less and less and later and later. Learn to initiate the turn by counter-steering: giving a slight nudge in the “wrong” direction in order to make your bike lean. Tighten the turn by looking further round the corner, lowering your inside shoulder and pressing down harder on your inside arm.
4. Nutrition while training for the Cent Cols
I suggest the following goals for nutrition during your training:
- Stay healthy
- Fuel your training with the right amount of energy
- Achieve your optimum weight
- Increase your fat-burning capacity
The order of these goals is deliberate. Both weight loss and fat-burning are important goals, but they must not come before either basic health or fuelling your training.
Stay healthy by eating the widest possible variety of natural, unprocessed foods. Stay away from industrial food, and don’t use supplements (unless advised to do so by a doctor).
A hard training day can result in energy expenditure of as much as 5,000 kCal. Essentially this means that you can (and should) eat as much as you want on hard training days. Unfortunately, it is very tempting to continue eating as much on an easy day, or even on a rest day. On these days you should cut right back and you must expect to feel a bit hungry.
Timing is important. You should eat as soon as possible after you stop exercising. If it is not convenient to have a proper meal you should at least take a snack that includes both carbs and protein, such as mixed nuts and dried fruit, a ham sandwich, or a hard-boiled egg and a slice of bread. There’s also some evidence that, particularly after high intensity exercise, it may be beneficial to take a high-protein snack just before going to bed in order to promote muscle synthesis while you sleep.
Achieving your optimum weight doesn’t mean dieting. It means putting in place a few simple rules that will help you lose weight progressively without compromising your training:
- Try to identify when you are genuinely hungry and not just peckish. If you can’t wait for the next meal, eat a small portion of fruit or nuts.
- Use smaller plates and bowls to encourage smaller portion sizes at meal times
- Start each meal with something that has low calorie density, such as two large glasses of water, raw carrots, bell peppers or salads.
You can increase your fat-burning capacity by:
- Doing most of your training at endurance pace, only eating on rides longer than 3 hours.
- Once a week, doing a long ride fasted for the first two hours (no breakfast).
- Cutting sugar from your diet when not exercising.
- Eating more carbs on days when your training is at higher intensity.
Be aware that following this strategy will increase your fat-burning capacity but reduce your ability to use carbs as fuel. You should therefore reintroduce carbs to your training rides in the weeks before the Cent Cols and also before any sportive or GranFondo.
Read here for more on nutrition while training for endurance events.
Poor choice of equipment is one of the most common reasons for failing to finish a Cent Cols. This is not the place to give detailed equipment recommendations but rather to encourage you to make your choices early and then test them thoroughly, in all weathers.
Most people have found that bikes with relaxed, endurance geometry and wide, tubeless tyres are a better choice than the latest stiff carbon race bike. Some of the Cent Cols routes include a lot of steep climbs: check whether this is the case for you and prepare accordingly. Nobody has ever regretted coming with low gears such as 32 front – 34 rear or 33 front – 36 rear.
It goes without saying that your saddle needs to be broken in and supremely comfortable.
Your personal equipment must be adaptable to all weathers between freezing rain and a heatwave. It’s not unusual to experience temperature variations of as much as 25°C between the summits and the valleys, and you need to be able to carry the extra clothes with you. Choose clothing with zips that are easy to open and close. The more you can regulate your temperature without stopping, the better, not so much to save time but to save energy.
Don’t be shy about adding bags to your bike: this is not a race! There are plenty of good options available for well-designed bags to fit on your bike in different ways.
If you are new to the Cent Cols and you want to enjoy the experience, make sure you prepare thoroughly. Follow the guidelines above and you should have a great ride and finish well. Remember, there are no shortcuts!
Support from Alpine Cols
Alpine Cols is a company based in France focused on coaching road cyclists for events in the mountains. Our team includes six professionally qualified coaches. If you would like professional help to prepare for your Cent Cols challenge, Alpine Cols has two complementary proposals:
- Sign up for a six-month coaching agreement to receive individual day-to-day coaching and one-on-one advice;
- Join a one-week coaching camp to benefit from a big block of training as well as one-on-one coaching on your technical skills and of course plenty of advice and tips for your preparation and the event itself.
Contact Marvin for more information.